Friday, February 12, 2010

An Olympic Moment: Reflections on Cultural and Social Innovation

Today's columnist is Stephen Huddart from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. He writes:

Today marks the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympic games, a celebration of athleticism and culture that originated in 776 BC in Ancient Greece. In those days, an Olympic truce was declared, putting a temporary stop to wars so that athletes could travel safely to Olympia. It is this sense of social innovation, of a commitment to something beyond the ordinary, that we’ll explore in this column.

At the risk of getting lost in a beautiful diversion, let’s begin by contemplating a work that artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has contributed to the 2010 Cultural Olympiad …or better yet, by taking part in it. Until February 28, 2010, visitors to the Vectorial Elevation site can direct 20 powerful searchlights to create enormous ten-second light sculptures over Vancouver’s English Bay. After designing a virtual array, you enter it in the queue for live presentation. Once it has played, you receive an email with a link to a webpage with photographs of your design as it appeared in the sky the night before.

The work can be seen as a metaphor for the open source community: working at a distance, thousands of people contribute a bit of ‘code’ to something much larger than they could have created on their own.

Impressive though the final results might be, Lozano-Hemmer’s intent isn’t to create something to replace fireworks displays. Instead, he writes, “…the piece is designed to attract constant, personal participation that creates a sense of connection, complicity and entitlement”. (emphasis mine)

This gets interesting. Let’s begin with "connection". Arguably, technologies that expand and extend human capacities are not independent of us – for better or worse, we co-evolve. Since connection via the Internet became a given in our age, it has offered new possibilities for enlarging our sense of empathy and belonging, with one another and with the biosphere. Jeremy Rifkin explores this idea at length in his new book, The Empathic Civilization. In a more tangible illustration of this principle, Canadians donated $113,000,000 to Haitian relief in less than a month.

"Complicity" presents a conundrum. ‘Partnership in a crime or wrongdoing’ is how the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it, but the sense we’re looking for is one that animates the open source world – that working together outside the norms of commercial behaviour, we can accomplish something extraordinary and beneficial. Innovation often takes place on the borders of what is known and challenges the rules set up to govern and regulate the status quo - rules that couldn’t have foreseen the need to operate outside of that system. An example from Vancouver illustrates the point. Insite is North America’s first safe injection site, part of a broader harm reduction strategy that saves lives by reducing risk and vulnerability among intravenous drug users. It is the only 400 square feet in North America where it isn’t illegal for a citizen to possess and inject heroin without a prescription. During the years when its efficacy and legitimacy were being challenged at all levels, it relied on an informal network of 25-30 police, health and legal professionals who met for lunch every month, outside of their organizational affiliations, to share information and strategy about keeping the doors open. British Columbia’s Court of Appeal recently ruled that provincial authority over health matters – and the related principal of locality - supercedes federal anti-drug laws, but the case may yet be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. With so much at stake in such issues, it should not surprise us that it can take so long to innovate within systems, or why the desire for justice leads some to work outside them.

Complicity has a certain cultural appeal. To be sure, it is in youthful application of cultural competencies that we detect the shape of social innovations to come. Here are a couple of examples to explore:

University LipDub is a worldwide phenomenon in which university students make a music video to answer the question “What do you do after studying?”, using their campus as a set, and recording the entire production in one take. If you are not one of its 4 million or so viewers to date, watch UQAM’s brilliant entry.

This week the World Bank launched Urgent Evoke, a ten-week long global on-line game structured around an imaginary network of secret change agents. It is a response to African universities' need to develop students’ capacities for creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship as sources of current and future economic wellbeing.

A self-organizing global community of designers and change agents is emerging around the PechaKucha concept. Wired magazine describes it in a memorable heading, ‘make your Powerpoint in 20 slides and then sit the hell down’.

"Entitlement" is our final stop. Vectorial Elevation reminds us that we are all complicit in shaping culture. So what underpins effective cultural citizenship in the digital age?

The first is access to the experience and means of cultural creation. A Quebec social innovation known as Journees de la Culture, which last year involved over 300,000 people in backstage visits, free presentations and general public engagement in the arts, is scheduled to make its national debut as Culture Days/Fetes de la Culture in fall 2010.

The second is artists’ right to use cultural sources to create new work. Filmmaker Brett Gaylor has done a brilliant job of presenting the case for open source culture in his film Rip: A Remix Manifesto. Remix 2.0 is scheduled for release later this year.

And finally, with an eye to the future, culture competency must be considered a key component of 21st century learning. ArtsSmarts - an organization on whose board I am pleased to serve - creates opportunities for teachers to collaborate with artists, providing students with learning experiences that help them to discover themselves, to explore place and possibility, to re-frame and to envision - like searchlights in the darkness.

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